The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mims Davies)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank hon. Members for joining us this afternoon. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for introducing the debate so thoughtfully.
As we have heard, being a parent is an incredibly important and rewarding job. It is one that comes with a unique set of challenges, from recovering from birth with a newborn to balancing employment and care and, in my own life, being a sandwich carer, so I absolutely understand the challenges. While I have the floor, I pay tribute to local firefighters who were battling a fire in Burgess Hill in my constituency just this afternoon, with members of the public being sent home and asked to be vigilant after another one yesterday in Sharpthorne. If you will indulge me, Mr McCabe, I thank them very much.
An 18-year-old will be coming into my house very shortly, and another teen. As a single mum and a woman returner, I really do get it, and I hope that some of my remarks will reflect that. I will be clear that I cannot answer all the issues, because they are not all in my remit, but I will undertake to write and share what I can and bring other Departments to account.
Last week was Loneliness Awareness Week. As parents, I think we have all felt incredibly lonely and isolated. Being a single parent can be overwhelming and incredibly difficult. It can be hard work; the pressures are not new, but they are definitely challenging right now. Overall, it is a wondrous, joyous slog—let us all be honest about that. Just after fathers’ day, we reflect that the boost for gender equality and equal parent support is vital. I thank Nicola for being here today, and all the groups and charities that support parents through this precious and—as we all recall, if ours are a little older—challenging time.
Speaking of baby boxes, on a slightly different point, I remember that my mum and dad gave me a war chest. They had been struggling with long-term illness and not having a huge amount of money, but it was a labour of love and of many trips to Poundland, and it really made a difference. We know that everything makes a difference at the start, when the parent is feeling the pressure and has had a big change in their life, particularly if the child is their first. Of course, added to that are high inflation, the cost of living challenges and global pressures, which make it very difficult to look after that precious little bundle. That is why it is important that in April we increased the rate of all statutory parental payments by 10.1%, in line with CPI, and we will continue to take decisive action to help households. I will outline some more of what we are doing shortly.
It is our firm belief that the best way to help people improve their financial circumstances throughout their life is through work, but, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North said, only when the time is right. It is important that people are given a choice, so I strongly agree with the points she made. We need to be ambitious in enabling parents to progress in work; it must not be only people without children who can do that, so we need to get things right. We need to support children by enabling their parents to be there when they want. That is equally valuable, and the flexible parental leave entitlements for new parents support just that.
I recognise that this is a complicated area, as hon. Members have said—I have taken their points on board. It is also vital that adopters get a better deal and more assistance. My wider family has experience of that, and it is really important too.
Parents must have access to the range of support and entitlements they need for their child’s first year. We are giving working families more choice and flexibility about who cares for their child when the parents are at work. Our statutory maternity leave entitlement is rightly generous, but hon. Members have said it is not generous enough—if only I had a magic wand. We offer 52 weeks of maternity leave, of which 39 are paid through statutory maternity pay. For self-employed women, who are not eligible for statutory maternity pay—I was one, so I very much understand the insecurity—maternity allowance is available. Both payments are designed to enable women to stop working towards the end of their pregnancy and in the precious months after childbirth. That is in their and their baby’s best interest; it supports their health, wellbeing and, above all, bonding.
I fully recognise the role that fathers can and must play in that crucial time, their child’s first year. We have a real opportunity to boost gender equality and support parents; I will say more about that later. Statutory paternity leave and pay arrangements enable employed fathers and partners who meet the qualifying conditions to take up to two weeks of paid leave within the first eight weeks following the birth of their child or placement for adoption. Qualifying parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) rightly said that shared parental leave gives mothers who wish to return to work the opportunity to do so, and rightly enables the father or partner to be the primary carer if they wish.
We want more men to confidently take the helm. Employers can really help with that by understanding that dads want and need to be there at key moments, not just the nativity or the parents evening. In fact, I am the guilty party who is never there for the parents evening, so it is flipped around in my world these days. If men can confidently be there, perhaps, as Opposition Members said, we can boost the take-up of the scheme, which started in 2015. We forecasted that between 2% and 8% of eligible couples would take part, and the actual take-up is broadly in line with that. It is increasing each year, but not fast enough. That is the challenge for us all: how we make the scheme something that people really feel they can take part in. In order to do that, the shared parental leave online tool is accessible for parents to check their eligibility and plan their leave together. We are currently evaluating the shared parental leave scheme and will publish our findings in due course.
There has been a clear message today on rates. The rate of all statutory parental payments is reviewed annually and, as mentioned, generally increases in line with the CPI. The Government will spend around £276 billion in 2023-24 on welfare support in Great Britain. I will come to further support for those who may be listening this afternoon who perhaps have not reached out for additional help. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North about the slightly indelicate link between out of work benefits and the support that we give to parents. I note her comments on that, and pretty much agree with her. I will take that away in terms of how we talk about supporting people who are out of work, and how we support pregnant working women when they are in the special position—let us be honest—of coming to the point when they want to do what is right for them next, and new mothers.
The Government spend approximately £3 billion on maternity payments. There is a balance to strike both in language and in any changes to the rate of SMP, taking account of economic circumstances and affordability for taxpayers. We also need to speak to stakeholders, some of whom have been mentioned, and businesses. It needs to be a holistic effort. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) gave a list of future plans that he may have, but in reality we want to ensure that we hear the asks both of the petitioners who have challenged us this afternoon and of the sectors and businesses, to ensure that we take people on any change journey. We have talked about planning, saving and spreadsheets where needed. I was—briefly, it feels like—married to an accountant, so I felt as if I was living in a world of spreadsheets. It is what we all have to do, and it is a challenge, particularly when we do not know what we do not know when it comes to parenting, and the impact that it will have on our back pocket.
I think employers can do more. The work of the civil service was mentioned. We have a very tight labour market. Consider a talented, skilled, brilliant woman who is adopting or becoming a mum in whatever way, whether for the first time or growing her family. Employers really need to think forward about job design and making it work for such women to return. I mentioned that I am a single mum; when I came to this place, I was a woman returner. Many of us are, and many mums, for various reasons, have been locked out of the labour market for far too long. They have incredible ability and talent. Employers have a chance to look at job design. In my constituency, Boeing has created a deliberate part-time role—not a role where a person squeezes full time into part time, but an actual role where they add value in a way that works for their circumstances. If we have more people in the labour market doing more, everyone will do better, so let us all challenge ourselves on that.
I have been given an extremely long speech, so I will try not to repeat things that many people will know, and will try to answer some of the questions. Hopefully I have covered the way in which things are calculated and equal access for adoptive parents. I agree with the point on the Healthy Start scheme needing a boost with regard to take-up. I will take that away to work on with colleagues. I think the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North made a fair point on outcomes and monitoring, and I note that.
My friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), talked about tax relief, which was reiterated by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). I am not in the Treasury, and I am delighted about that every day; until I get the call-up, I will pass on that headache for as long as possible. I say that very gently—did I actually say that out loud? My point is that it is a matter for the Treasury. I am sure it is listening and I will leave it to get on with it.
Regarding the Scotland Act 1998, I am delighted that the hon. Member for Glasgow East is using those powers. I note his point about under-25s; that is not my policy area, but he knows that I have a strong interest in youth policy and single parents. I undertake to understand his point and take it away.
For those listening to this debate who have a concern about mortgages, I said on the Floor of the House this afternoon, and I reiterate here, that if people are worried they should engage with their mortgage lender. There is support for mortgage interest out there. We have abolished the zero-earnings rule to allow claimants on universal credit to receive support while in work and on UC—support is now available after three months. People should engage with their lenders. We paid £25 million to 12,000 households in 2021-22 and we will continue to extend that support for mortgage interest rates. People should use the benefits calculator on gov.uk if they are concerned; there is help for households on that site and links to the household support fund, which I will come on to shortly.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East raised a concern about miscarriage leave. Miscarriages are a deeply challenging, personal and devasting experience for many women, as well as their partners and families. In this place we have got better at talking about such things, but it is still too unspoken and difficult in the workplace, which is something a friend of mine recently spoke to me about. The Government believe that individuals are best placed to know their own specific needs, and that good employers will rightly respond in a sensitive way to requests made by employees.